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September 23, 2004

Military charity

Belle Waring was right, Jacob Levy was wrong. Libertarians can’t support humanitarian wars because humanitarian wars are military charity. Libertarians oppose wealth redistribution and social welfare spending. They argue that it is wrong to forcibly part the rich and their money in order to benefit the poor—even if the money is being spent to redress rights violations. For example, most libertarians wouldn’t support peaceful publicly-funded initiatives to combat female genital mutilation or to advance the civil rights of pariah caste Indians, or what have you. It would be absurd for libertarians to make a special exception for violent rights promotion.

Of course, as Matt Yglesias notes, the invasion of Iraq doesn’t meet any important libertarian criteria for war.


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Yep, really, this one is easy. Libertarians--at least as the term is meaningful--can support war in immediate self-defense, and, er, that's it.

Right on the money. Debate closed.

I disagree. Many pro-war libertarians these days are *primarily* basing their support of the Iraq on humanitarian arguments e.g. Saddam was a dictator, was guilty of genocide, oppressed women, etc. Just read Glenn Reynolds, No Left Turns, Virginia Postrel, or Volokh Conspiracy if you want examples. They heavily emphasize humanitarian arguments, in fact it probably trumps all other arguments these days. (especially after the failure to find WMD).

In fact, the leftist humanitarian arguments for Clinton's Kosovo war and the conservative/libertarian humanitarian argumetns for Dubya's Iraq war are remarkably similar in many ways. Take out a few names and it is often impossible to tell them apart.

Lots of people who call themselves libertarians make humanitarian arguments. All's I'm saying is that they are thereby defecting from the firm fundamentals of their creed.

If they want to join me in the sunny uplands of unreconstructed Benthamism, so be it!


I agree. There is an odd disconnect in so many ways between what their Hayekian skepticism on domestic regulation and their unbounding faith in the ability in the state to police to create a "new Iraq."

1. I am an ex-libertarian who is now an advocate for welfare beneficiaries.
2. Top libertarian organizations, esp. the Libertarian Party and the Cato Institute, are, in fact, strongly against the Iraq war.
3. I strongly agree that, as conducted, no libertarian could rightfully support Bush in the Iraq war.

However, on the issue of theory, you are simply wrong.

You state, "They argue that it is wrong to forcibly part the rich and their money in order to benefit the poor—even if the money is being spent to redress rights violations." No, they do not argue this. Anarcho-Capitalists argue this. Actually, libertarian minarchists this is the entirety of what a government should do, and in fact your claim here is the complete point of contention between libertarians and anarcho-capitalists. Further, you have ignored Levy's point about governments not having rights in and of themselves. Nothing about libertarian philosophy limits that government that protects against rights violations to a particular geographic region. If a libertarian who believes that a person who lives in San Diego can be forced to pay taxes to prevent female genital mutilation in Boston (and any who is not anarcho-capitalist would believe this), why can’t that same person be taxed to stop it in Africa?

As for Matt’s point about libertarians being skeptical about the effectiveness of big state projects like nation-building, reflected by David above commenting about Hayek, I would note that Hayek and his followers are not, by your definition, libertarians. Hayek was a utilitarian who thought that distributed information made central planning inherently inefficient. So you would be right that people who follow his principles should not support nation-building. Since I believe that libertarianism is a political stance that can be justified by utilitarianism, I would agree that THOSE libertarians must, in principle, oppose such wars.

But in a previous thread, you claimed that libertarianism is essentially deontological. So, when you discuss libertarians, you must be discussing the deontological ones. And deontological libertarianism only refers to the rightness of state action, not its efficiency. Therefore, you can not use efficiency arguments against the people you call “libertarians”.

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